The All’s Well Story
Boccaccio’s ‘Decameron’, third day, ninth story
and Shakespeare’s ‘All’s Well that Ends Well’
This text copyright © 2008 Dr Anne Wilson
The ritual plot I find in the ‘All’s Well’ texts is a comparatively simple one, without special moves to remove opposing feelings. The heroine takes giant steps forward to her sovereignty without the delays Horn and Ipomedon find necessary, and her plot therefore presents different problems from those I usually encounter.
It is the ‘delays’ for the performance of rituals to remove or punish unwanted ideas that raise many of the problems in texts, and these rituals also give the plot a more benign appearance than we find in the ‘All’s Well’ plot. In the ‘All’s Well’ plot, we are troubled most by the heroine, who appropriates the male role as sexual aggressor and uses the bed-trick, and by her young man, a character without character. All sovereignty plots are a progress towards victory, and the hero or heroine can appear ruthless because they are alone in their plot, masterminding it and moving the other characters around like pawns. The heroine has the single point of view in this plot, leaving her young man with none, and once authors adopt a ritual plot they can’t do much about this.
In their examination of the problems, critics have approached the plot as a ‘clever wench’ fairy tale, while the problems I see are more formidable. There is no distance between this plot and those who adopt it, identifying with its heroine, and ritual plots have a powerful, hidden hold on authors and audiences. Both Boccaccio and Shakespeare adopt this plot – Boccaccio with much greater success than Shakespeare – and use it to present a love story where the heroine is the admirable character. They undertake characterisation and supply points of view, but, since their minds are also (unconsciously) caught up with the plot, the young man, at the butt-end of the admired heroine’s arrangements, falls victim to the authors’ involvement with her: in Shakespeare’s version, he ends up condemned by us all, even though his role in the plot is merely the status desired by the heroine. Authors’ solutions rarely fit, because they are working without penetrating to the real problem, and the best course is not to try too hard. As Susan Snyder shows, Boccaccio smoothly negotiates potential awkwardness, adhering to the simple theme of how the heroine overcomes external obstacles to her marriage with a nobleman, while Shakespeare’s dramatisation brings latent tensions to the surface by getting inside awkward moments rather than gliding over them.1
While the authors treat their plot as a love story, a ritual plot could not be a love story: it could only be about desire, the desire of anyone identified with it for a sense of their own consequence and splendour. For her first step towards securing her marriage to a ‘prince’, the heroine employs the familiar manoeuvre of healing a king who has promised beforehand to reward her with the husband of her choice. Then she establishes herself in his dominion in his absence, acclaimed by his people as their rightful mistress. Shakespeare’s play expresses the second of these stratagems differently from Boccaccio’s tale: in Boccaccio, it forms the second move, while Shakespeare expresses it through adding supportive characters to the dominion, particularly the Countess, mother-figure and mother-in-law. Finally, the heroine achieves the consummation of her marriage by means of the bed-trick of folktale tradition, obtaining her husband’s ring and the conception of his children.
Why would Shakespeare adopt this plot? He used ritual plots on two other occasions, for ‘Hamlet’2 and ‘Pericles’3, with great success, but those I find purification plots, while ‘All’s Well’ has a sovereignty plot with an aggressive heroine. When choosing the tale from the ‘Decameron’, Shakespeare could have dropped its move structure at the outset, and used the characters and adventures freely for his own imaginative exploration, but evidently it was the ritual plot that had caught his mind. A ritual plot does not enter a text unless it has a hold on the author. Scholars have speculated that Shakespeare’s own experience of love for a young nobleman may have drawn him to Boccaccio’s story,4 and this may have played a part in his treatment of Helena, but the ritual plot itself is about sovereignty, not love.
Since Shakespeare’s text includes the addition of the supportive countess in the young man’s dominion, in lieu of Boccaccio’s clear second move, my outline of the author’s narrative is restricted to Boccaccio’s narrative.
The Ritual Plot of the All’s Well Story
 Susan Snyder, ed. All’s Well that Ends Well, Oxford, 1993, pp. 2-6.
 See Anne Wilson, Plots and Powers, University Press of Florida, 2001, pp. 142-150, 204-210.
 See Anne Wilson, The Magical Quest, Manchester, 1988, pp. 24-49. The Apollonius of Tyre story is discussed briefly, with a chart, in Cached Paper no. 2, ‘Magical Structures in Narrative: some Medieval Examples’, on this website.
 See Susan Snyder, Ibid, pp. 44-48.
I discuss the All’s Well story briefly in The Magical Quest, pages 18-19.
This text copyright © 2008 Dr Anne Wilson
Please do not copy or quote from this text without acknowledging the author.